The annual Orionid meteor shower peaks early Sunday morning and could put on a delightful display for skywatchers with clear, dark skies.
The Orionids are created by tiny bits of debris thought to be left in space by Halley's Comet as it orbits the sun. Each year, Earth passes through the debris trail, and the material lights up as it vaporizes in our atmosphere, creating "shooting stars."
In the countryside away from light pollution, the Orionids typically serve up around 20 meteors per hour during the peak. This year could be double that, said Joe Rao, SPACE.com's Skywatching Columnist. The estimate is based on a tentative new prediction from Mikaya Sato and Jun-ichi Watanabe of Japan's National Astronomical Observatory. However, meteor shower predictions are notoriously difficult, experts agree.
Either way, cloudless skies and dark conditions away from streetlights and house lights would make for an enjoyable show anytime between 1:30 a.m. and daybreak Sunday, Rao figures.
"Almost certainly, you should sight at least a few of these offspring of Halley's Comet as they streak across the sky," he said.
Urban skywatchers would see far fewer meteors.
The meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, but will all seem to emanate from a single point, called the radiant. The radiant for the Orionids, in the constellation Orion, will be high in the southern sky in the predawn hours.
Meteor watching is best done from a location with a broad view of the sky. A blanket or lounge chair allows the skywatcher to comfortably lie back and look up. Seasoned observers advise wearing much warmer clothing than you think you might need. Telescopes and binoculars are not needed.
The Orionid shower is already under way and ramping up, producing a handful of meteors each hour after midnight. So, the mornings immediately surrounding the peak could be worth a look too, Rao said.
Meteor Watching 101: Tips and terms
> The part of Earth where dawn is breaking is always at the leading edge of our planet's plunge along its orbital path around the Sun. This part of the planet tends to "catch" oncoming meteors left by a comet, whereas the other side of Earth, where it is dusk or late evening, outruns the debris. For that reason, the hours between midnight and dawn are typically the best time to watch a meteor shower.
> Allow time for your eyes to adjust to darkness. A good hour is smart, so that you can also practice some prior to prime observing time.
> Dress warmer than you think you need to, especially in winter.
> Bring a lounge chair or blanket, so you can relax and look up with ease.
> During meteor showers, shooting stars appear to emanate from a point in the sky called the radiant. There are different ideas about how to use this fact to aid in spotting meteors. Robert Lunsford has these thoughts:
One idea is that it is preferable to look away from the radiant so that the shower meteors you see will be longer and therefore easy to detect motion. As Mark Davis stated one should look 20-40 degrees distant. At this distance the radiant is still in your field of view so that shower association is still fairly easy.
Those who look directly at the radiant can see shower activity travel in any direction. Shower association will be fairly obvious. Meteors that appear near the radiant will be foreshortened and therefore the motion will be more difficult to detect.